Feature: Adult education and distance learning
After leaving school or university and entering the workforce, full-time study is often not an option for many people. Family, work and financial commitments do not allow the luxury of studying full-time at an academic institution. However, there is still significant value to be gained by returning to study after some time in the workforce. Life and work experience can complement the theory and new ideas derived from continued education.
Motivations for further education
Motivations for further study include improved prospects for promotion and salaries; the chance to change career direction; or gaining a deeper understanding of a particular field of work.
There are also less tangible reasons for further education. We all have an instinctive drive to make meaning of our lives, and change and uncertainty can lead us to question what we know or believe. We need to be able to make more informed decisions and explore and validate our beliefs (Taylor 2011). Further education, irrespective of the topics studied, can help us to understand our world in a more critical and richer sense.
For many people, the best option for continued study is via part-time, distance education. This allows students to continue to work and maintain their family and social ties, while studying at a less than full-time study load. However, there are significant issues with this approach, such as:
- the limited time available for study, after work and family commitments
- the lack of a stimulating environment for study that is experienced through attending an academic institution
- the difficulty of self-motivation without the support of peers
- the lack of interaction with lecturers and other students
- issues with technology and quality of teaching materials when studying from home
Effective distance education & adult learning
Distance education programs should aim to minimise the issues outlined above, while also applying principles of adult education to create effective and useful outcomes for students. Malcolm Knowles (1968) first proposed a theory of adult learning that differed from pre-adult schooling. He described aspects such as:
- accumulated reservoir of experience that becomes a resource for learning,
- readiness to learn and growing orientation to the developmental tasks of the learner’s social roles,
- application of knowledge that is increasingly tied to application and problem centeredness,
- internal motivation to learn, and
- the need to know why something should be learned (Knowles, 1984, p. 12).
Later, David Kolb (1984) developed a four stage cyclical model to represent how adults learn from experience. The model has become a foundation to contemporary understanding of adult learning processes and how to engage adults in learning effectively. Kolb distinguished between four learning stages – concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. He proposed that adult learning proceeds round the four stages although it may begin in any of them. Having a real experience provokes reflective observation about that experience, which leads to changes in the way in which the learner conceptualises and consequently how they act and have further experiences.
Central to Kolb’s experiential learning theory was the proposition that people have discrete types of learning styles, based on the four learning stages above. Many more dimensions and ways of characterising learning styles have been proposed since Kolb, and it is generally agreed that people can exhibit various learning styles in different contexts (Loo, 2004).
Context is critical
Although other ways of characterising learning styles have been proposed since Kolb, his work
highlights the importance of knowing the learning audience and considering the range of ways in which different adults might engage in learning and how learning activities might be structured. More recent work has also highlighted the importance of the learning context outside of the individual learner (Merriam, 2011). This includes cultural and historical norms, as well as physical and social surroundings.
A practical articulation of how learning approaches can be implemented with adults is provided by the Mekong River Commission (2011), who state that adults learn when it is:
- Fills an immediate need
- Experiential – from shared experience across learners
- Includes feedback (or formative assessment – see below)
- Shows respect for the learner
- Done in a safe and comfortable environment (where safe means with regards to not being potentially a source of embarrassment for perceived failure)
Applying knowledge to deliver the MIWM
Taking the above knowledge into account, a part-time distance education option for the Master of Integrated Water Management program was developed. The program has been designed to address the issues with distance education described above, as well as incorporate key aspects of adult learning.
A purely online approach to delivery was considered to be insufficient for the complex nature of integrated water management, and the wicked problems it seeks to address. Face-to-face interaction with lecturers and other students (both full-time and part-time), is a key aspect of the learning process and part-time students therefore attend a face-to-face intensive at the beginning of each of the four course work semesters. This is followed by weekly live online sessions throughout the semester, where there is an opportunity to share ideas and discuss the practical applications of theory.
A complete set of learning resources is also provided for students to progress their learning at their own pace, and assessments are designed to be flexible and practically oriented, to cover the wide range of academic and work experience within the student cohort.
Theories of Adult education have been used in combination with the flexibility of distance learning to deliver a practical program on Integrated Water Management that offers water professionals the opportunity to engage in further education, and the generation and application of new ideas in the water management space.
Lecturer and Flexible Delivery Manager
Phone +61 7 3028 7600
Knowles, MS 1968, ‘Andragogy, not pedagogy’, Adult Leadership, 16(10), 350-352.
Knowles, MS 1984, The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed.) Houston, TX: Gulf.
Kolb, DA 1984, Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development, Prentice-Hall Inc, New Jersey.
Loo, R 2004, ‘Kolb’s learning styles and learning preferences: is there a linkage?’, Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology 24(1): 99-108.
Mekong River Commission, 2011, Manual for Training Trainers in Integrated Water Resources Management in the Mekong Basin, MRC, October 2011.
Merriam, S 2011, ‘Adult Learning Theory for the Twenty-First Century’ in Merrian, S (Ed) J-B ACE Single Issue Adult & Continuing Education : Third Update on Adult Learning Theory : New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 119 (1). Jossey-Bass US, pp. 93-98.
Taylor, E 2011, ‘Transformative Learning Theory’ in Merriam, S (Ed) J-B ACE Single Issue Adult & Continuing Education : Third Update on Adult Learning Theory : New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 119 (1). Jossey-Bass US, pp. 5-15.